Central Park's 100th Anniversary
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Central Park, the Arboretum Society hosted an exhibit to showcase the park’s history. The exhibit presented the park's history, its transformation over the years and plans for the future. It was developed by SMAS volunteers with input from the San Mateo Historical Association, the City of San Mateo and the San Mateo Library. The free exhibit ran at the Kohl Pumphouse from September 15 through October 30, 2022. Below is a link to the exhibit posters, a summary of some of the guestbook comments and an article summarizing the exhibit content.
This short article provides a brief summary of the exhibit content.
In the mid-19th century, C.B. Polhemus purchased a large tract of land (about 200 acres) in what would later become San Mateo. He was a railroad magnate who developed the San Francisco-San Jose line. Over time, the tract was subdivided and portions sold and developed.
In 1874, Captain William Kohl purchased 16 of those acres for an estate that would eventually become Central Park. Kohl made his fortune in the Alaska-California shipping industry. The property included a mansion at the corner of 5th and Laurel Ave. Kohl had the estate landscaped with exotic trees, an orchard, vineyard and pathways to easily traverse the property.
In 1921 the Kohl’s last surviving heir died. The City of San Mateo voted to acquire the estate for a city park and issued $80,000 in bonds for the purchase which was completed in 1922. It was the first municipal park in San Mateo county.
Due to its excellent landscaping, minimal changes were needed to convert the estate to a city park. The orchard and vineyard were removed and replaced by a ballfield. In 1923, the first memorial plaque was installed honoring WW I veterans, In 1924, the park became the home field for the semi-pro baseball team, the San Mateo Blues.
In 1923, the San Mateo Junior College moved to the new park. They used the Kohl mansion as the campus for the 40 students. But enrollment grew quickly. Tents were needed to hold classes. The college moved to a new location in 1927 and in 1928, the beautiful but unused mansion was razed.
The park saw few changes in its first few decades. In the 1940s, a playground was added and a miniature train was installed on a 500 foot circular track. There were several attempts to raise funds to improve the park, either through bonds, parcel taxes and such. These were all voted down. There was a serious proposal to build a new library in the park but it was also voted down.
In the 1960’s bonds were finally approved for improvements to city parks. Central Park saw major enhancement during this decade. The recreation center was designed and built. Tennis courts and the underground parking structure were installed along 5th Avenue. Playground improvements were made.
But the most significant addition to Central Park during this time was the Japanese Garden. The San Mateo Gardeners Association, mostly Japanese-Americans, proposed the garden “to let people know that the friendship between our peoples is strong …” They formed an organization to raise funds and hired Nagao Sakurai, a leading landscape architect, to design it. The city allocated an acre for the garden and provided equipment for its construction which was mostly done by volunteers. San Mateo’s sister city, Toyonaka, Japan, donated a five-story pagoda for the garden. The Japanese Garden attracts visitors to Central Park from all over the world.
In 1975, the San Mateo Arboretum Society was founded thanks to the efforts of Marion Panaretos. An original objective was to promote and grow Central Park as a true arboretum, thus the name. The Kohl Pumphouse became the Arboretum Society headquarters after Marion heard rumors that it was to be demolished and replaced by a bocce ball court. She appealed to the City and was granted use of it. The Arboretum Society upgraded the pumphouse to an attractive and usable space.
Over time, the Arboretum Society made significant contributions to Central Park. A beautiful Victorian Garden was installed in front of the Pumphouse. With an ornate iron gate entrance and a three-tier fountain, it is a quiet and restful space that is popular with park goers. A nursery for plant sales was added along with two greenhouses donated by the City. A jewel of Central Park is undoubtedly the Rose Garden, planted in 1993 and since maintained all by Arboretum Society volunteers.
Central Park has been the venue for many events and celebrations throughout the years. One of the largest was Victorian Days in the Park which was a celebration of San Mateo history sponsored by the San Mateo County Historical Association. Held on a weekend every summer from 1979-2002 it attracted upwards of 50,000 visitors. It included a fashion show of vintage garments, antique automobiles, live music and craft and historical booths. In recent years, popular events include the ice-skating rink on the baseball field, the holiday lights festival, the spring Eggstravaganza, the July 4th festival and, not to forget, the Music in the Park series in the summer.
Major changes are coming for Central Park. The new Master Plan approved in 2018 will be implemented in several phases. The first phase is a major renovation of the playground and installation of the Fallen Heroes Memorial. A later phase will relocate the tennis courts to the southwest quadrant of the park. The space currently occupied by the tennis courts will be replaced by a new plaza. A new community building will replace the existing one.
Central Park has its mysteries. Perhaps you can solve one of them.
- Who built the Kohl mansion? The mansion already existed when Kohl bought his estate. But it was not built by Polhemus. The property changed hands several times between the two and it is not known who built the elaborate mansion.
- Who landscaped the Kohl estate? The design has been variously attributed John McLauren, William O’Farrell and Jesse Penton. But who did what is unknown.
- Who planted the Moreton Bay fig? This enormous tree near the playground is estimated to be about 225 years old. It is native to eastern Australia, nowhere near California. So, how did it get to Central Park?
- Where is the second dog? The Kohl estate once had two bronze dog statues. Today only the one remains, the one “guarding” the Rose Garden. Nobody knows what happened to its companion.